If you've ever shot video handheld with a mirrorless or DSLR, camera shake may have ruined your day. To deal with it, you need a heavy-duty gimbal, but that can cost more than the camera. Another way is to fix it in post-production, but the results can be less than optimal. That's where the $350 SteadXP stabilizer comes in. It mounts on your hot shoe and measures all the motion with an accelerometer, then uses an included app to cancel it out. The results, I found, are quite good -- provided you keep its limitations in mind and have the time and patience for the process.
Stabilizing rigs like DJI's Ronin can cost thousands of dollars and be complex and cumbersome. Adobe Premiere Pro CC and Final Cut Pro X can do the job, but the software might guess camera movement wrong, making stabilization distorted or just bad.
The big selling points of the SteadXP, then, are that it's relatively inexpensive at $350 ($236 for the GoPro version) and all you have to do is attach it to your DSLR's hot shoe or the GoPro Hero port. With a built-in motion detector, it records all your camera jitters and movements, rather than guesstimating them afterwards. And using that info, it can, in theory, make everything perfectly smooth.
I tried the SteadXP with both the Sony A7S and the A7S II, using the 28-70mm Sony FE kit and Sony's Zeiss 16-35 f/4 lenses. (As with any kind of handheld footage, wider-angle lenses are always better.) On the GoPro side, I used a Hero 4 (it's not compatible with the Hero 5 and 6 at all, unfortunately). As you need a supported lens and camera body and a microphone-input jack, the only supported cameras for now are select Canon, Sony and Panasonic models, including the 5D Mark III, A6300, A7S, A7S II, GH4 and GH5.
In my SteadXP test, I replicated its most typical use -- running and walking up and down the street -- which is also the trickiest situation for stabilizers to handle. I also tried both 4K and 1080p video.
To use the SteadXP, you mount it on your camera's hot shoe or cold shoe. Once you're ready to shoot, plug it into the microphone input using the included cable (the SteadXP sends an audible data signal recorded by your camera). So you can record sound, the company also threw in a splitter.
You then set the zoom (if applicable) to a predetermined, fixed point: 16mm, 28mm or 34 mm, on the lenses I was using. You'll need to double-check each shot to make sure the zoom doesn't move, or the software will get confused later.
While the SteadXP is simpler to use, overall, than mechanical or electrical gimbals, there are a few things to keep in mind before shooting. First, it will crop your footage, so you're going to lose some resolution. That means, more than usual, you must keep your subjects towards the center of the frame, and, if possible, shoot at a higher resolution than the finished video -- in 4K if you want to finish in full HD, for instance.
There are a few settings you must watch, as well. For instance, stabilization on both your lens and DSLR/mirrorless body must be turned off, or the SteadXP will fight it. You also need to consider which shutter speed to use. Low shutter speeds of around 24-60 fps, often used to create a soft cinematic look, will cause blurred frames that can mess with the SteadXP.
If you're walking or running, for example, and the shutter speed is too low, each footstep will create blur. SteadXP will smooth out the motion, sure, but you'll have a frame that's jarringly blurred for what looks like no reason. Using faster shutter speeds solves that, but could also give your footage a strobing look, like the D-Day beach scenes from Saving Private Ryan.
With settings fixed and when the SteadXP has a flashing green signal, you're ready to shoot. The company recommends starting with a rapid pan, so the software has a clear reference to sync your footage.
After I shot a bunch of scenes in both full HD and 4K, I was ready to stabilize the footage using the companion app. To do that, you first upload your footage, then locate the accompanying SteadXP data file recorded on to a microSD card.
Once the footage and motion data files are synced, you pick the stabilization and crop levels for how smooth and cropped you want your footage. Those settings go hand-in-hand -- if you want just a touch of stabilization to eliminate micro-jitters, you don't have to crop as much. If you want to eliminate all your bobs and weaves, you'll need to cut more from the edges.
The final results, as shown in the before and after videos (above), can be excellent, if you do everything right. It did require a fairly painful trial-and-error period, but I'm now confident I could get good smooth footage from the SteadXP in future. On top of that, Sony's A7S II and A7S full-frame mirrorless cameras are known for their hideous levels of rolling shutter (aka, the jello effect), and the SteadXP software fixed that problem admirably, leaving no trace of the problem that I can see.
The best part of using SteadXP was that it let me shoot without changing too much of what I was already doing. As long as I remembered to plug it into the camera before filming and double check a few settings, I could shoot normally and deal with the stabilization afterwards. If things don't go to plan, at least you still have the footage and can try to fix it in post-production.
The not-so-good part: To get sharp 1080p results, you have to shoot 4K video because of cropping. But you can't have full 4K video without upscaling because it's currently impossible using the SteadXP. The best you can do is keep cropping to a minimum, so you can save your stabilized video at as high a resolution as possible, like 2.7K, for instance. That way, when you upscale to 4K, the video will be as sharp as possible. You also have to closely watch settings like shutter speed and zoom position, and be more careful than usual with shot framing.
It's definitely good to practice with the SteadXP for a few days before using it in the field. Also keep in mind that it is a Kickstarter product, so the usual risks apply. If neither of those are deal-breakers, the SteadXP is a relatively economical way to stabilize your shots from time to time. If you really do a lot of it, then you probably already own a Ronin or Steadicam, and if not, you should get one.
Update: The first stabilization video originally had a glitch at the top, which was caused by user error (a bad setting). That footage has been replaced. The post also originally stated that the SteadXP price was $250, but it's actually $350 ($236 for the GoPro version). It has been updated with the correct information.
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